If every school on earth assembled a band of its all-time best musicians, the smart money in a cutting contest would be on Joseph A. Craig Elementary. Craig moved into this building when it opened in 1927, following a years-long dispute about where its students—all of them Black—would be allowed to study. The neighborhood in those days was fairly diverse, and some white people feared the school would anchor a Black community here, which, in fact, it did. As segregation intensified in the mid-1900s, the school—nicknamed Craig University—became a Treme institution.
In the 1930s the school offered vocal music classes and had a small student band. There was no budget for instruments, but Craig parents chipped in, and some children were able to bring theirs from home. Students included Earl Palmer, the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer; Yvonne Busch, who’d become a legendary music teacher; Edgar “Dooky” Chase, soon to be a bandleader and restaurateur; Benny Powell, who’d be a trombone master in Count Basie’s big band; and Warren Bell, Sr., who’d play saxophone with the likes of Cab Calloway and Ray Charles.
Brass band icon “Uncle” Lionel Batiste grew up across the street from Craig in the 30s and 40s. When the school band rehearsed on the third floor with the windows open, Batiste would play along on his front steps. The band director’s sister took notice and recruited him to play snare drum. Drummer Benny Jones, Sr. attended Craig a little later; he and Batiste became extended family and longtime collaborators, from the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band in the 70s to the Treme Brass Band beginning in the 90s.
In the postwar years Craig helped groom some of the city’s finest drummers, including Joseph “Smokey” Johnson, who played on countless classic R&B records, and John Boudreaux, who played on plenty himself. Other alumni of the rhythm and blues era were trumpeter Warren “Porgy” Jones, a local favorite who toured with stars like Art Blakey to Jerry “The Iceman” Butler; James Rivers, whose saxophone can be heard on the classics “Carnival Time” and “Sea Cruise,” and is also New Orleans’ best-known bagpiper; Sam Henry, a music teacher and organ man at the helm of Sam and the Soul Machine; and Emile Hall, another educator and saxophonist who served as Irma Thomas’ bandleader.
The band room at Craig became part of a cultural corridor in Treme including Charbonnet Funeral Home, St. Augustine Catholic Church, and a number of neighborhood barrooms and music venues, like Joe’s Cozy Corner. Music was integral to daily life in the neighborhood, and a vital part of its rituals. Jazz funerals regularly passed Craig on their way down St. Philip Street, perking up the ears of students including clarinetist Joseph Torregano. He recalled watching three brass bands play in the procession for clarinet hero Alphonse Picou. (Another clarinetist, Doreen Ketchens, found inspiration elsewhere: she signed up for the Craig band to avoid a pop quiz.)
Trumpeter and bandleader Gregg Stafford lived nearby in 1985 when he started his teaching career at Craig. By then the neighborhood was nearly entirely Black. “[B]y me playing [trumpet] in all the parades and funerals, everybody knew me in the community,” Stafford recalled. “We were like family in that school.” He taught neighborhood kids like trombonist Corey Henry and drummer Derrick Tabb who became stalwarts of a new generation of brass bands in the 90s.
Craig became a charter school after Hurricane Katrina, to the chagrin of civil rights activist Jerome Smith, who ran summer camps here with his Tambourine and Fan organization. The change, along with the gentrification of Treme, threatened the bond between the school and the neighborhood. (When Smith was a student at Craig in the 40s, the curriculum included drum lessons that helped him overcome a speech impediment.) Now that the school lacks a full-time music teacher Smith makes a point to play jazz for the students he teaches at the Treme Center, on the spot where Uncle Lionel grew up listening to the Craig band rehearse.
About Music Education in New Orleans
Jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis’ famous observation that New Orleans culture “bubbles up from the streets” is sometimes invoked to suggest he city’s music is naturally occurring, like an underground spring just waiting to be tapped. In fact, Marsalis was differentiating New Orleans from places where culture is imposed “from on high.” He knew better than anyone that music doesn’t just happen—he raised a family of musicians, trained generations of performers and teachers, and established jazz studies programs at multiple schools and universities. His career as an educator is a testament to the work required to keep the culture bubbling.
Historically, institutional support for this effort has been hard to come by. Jazz was prohibited in New Orleans schools for most of a century after its birth, on racist and classist grounds. A few early jazz musicians taught themselves, but often they learned from elders, sometimes relatives or neighbors, or in private lessons with professionals. Promising students graduated to on-the-job training: New Orleans bandleaders have a long history of recruiting apprentices to perform with them. Once they joined the professional ranks, the density of bandstands in the city made it easy for musicians to listen to and learn from their peers.
Some jazz pioneers like Jelly Roll Morton studied music formally, while others learned by ear. A typical early jazz artist grew up surrounded by music: at home, in church, in parks, in barrooms, and, sure enough, from the streets, in parades and funeral processions, from buskers and bands advertising themselves on flatbeds of passing trucks. Music performed various functions in everyday life in New Orleans, and musicians often trained to be versatile enough to find employment in different settings.
As for classroom instruction, the city maintained two segregated school systems well into the 1960s, with Black students often crowded into run-down facilities. Some of their music teachers, like the venerable Yvonne Busch, let a little jazz into their lessons, official policy notwithstanding (she also encouraged students interested in playing rhythm and blues outside of school). Generally, though, school music programs for both Black and white students were taught conventional curricula, of the kind found across the country.
Some Black musicians found opportunities for education through the military—rhythm and blues architect Dave Bartholomew honed his music writing and arranging skills in the 196th Army Ground Forces Band during World War II. Others, including members of the legendary house band at J&M Studio, used the G.I. bill to enroll in private music schools in New Orleans. A Korean War veteran, the producer and arranger Wardell Quezergue, tapped his formal training to compose elegant songs in popular genres like R&B and funk, leading Allen Toussaint to dub him the “Creole Beethoven.”
The face of music education in New Orleans changed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when, after more than a decade of resistance, the city’s school system desegregated in earnest. The ensuing departure of white students meant public school bands became predominantly Black cultural institutions. Marching bands in particular gained city-wide prominence through their performances in Mardi Gras parades. Though the schools were chronically under-funded, devoted band directors and boosters helped make these programs points of pride. They also produced musicians who would power the brass band revival of the 1980s and 90s (several after-school programs and summer camps contributed on that front, too).
Marsalis helped inaugurate the first formal jazz program in New Orleans’ public schools at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) in 1973. It cultivated students’ awareness of music history and business savvy along with their instrumental chops, and launched a slew of nationally influential artists, including Donald Harrison, Jr., Harry Connick, Jr., Nicholas Payton, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and Jon Batiste (as well as Marsalis’ sons, Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason).
Marsalis also founded the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans in 1988, tapping the great Harold Battiste, an old bandmate, as a professor. Other world-class teaching artists anchored university programs in the area, including Alvin Batiste at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Edward “Kidd” Jordan at Southern University in New Orleans, Dr. Michael White at Xavier University, Maynard Chatters at Dillard University, and Terence Blanchard (another NOCCA alumnus) at the University of New Orleans and the Monk Institute at Loyola University.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city laid off public school teachers en masse and thousands, including veteran band directors, were never rehired. The post-Katrina displacement of roughly 100,000 Black residents from New Orleans also did heavy damage to community-based music instruction in churches and homes, where many students lost contact with elder artists.
In the absence of systemic public support, privately funded non-profits sought to fill in some of the gaps. Since 2008, one of the most successful has been the Roots of Music, an after-school marching band for middle-schoolers, the brainchild of Rebirth Brass Band snare drummer Derrick Tabb. Growing up in Treme in the 80s, Tabb learned to play by following the second lines that went by his house, practicing with his neighbors, and being drilled by career band directors at his nearby middle and high schools. With opportunities like these limited for students today, the pressure is on to cultivate the next generation of New Orleans musicians.
Author and educator Al Kennedy discusses music education in New Orleans, including the program at Craig Elementary.